Inbox Zero

I’ve realized that in all of the chaos surrounding the start of the school year, I never got around to blogging about Inbox Zero!

Like many schools and institutions around the world, email has become an integral tool at UNIS. If the email server ever goes down for even 10 minutes (which, thanks to our tech department, very rarely happens!) there is a hint of panic amongst the staff.

Unfortunately, even as our reliance on email as a mode of communication has increased to the point of being absolutely essential, our ability to handle the vast quantities of email that we receive on a daily basis has barely evolved if at all. In fact, one of the most common complaints/concerns that I hear amongst our teachers is that there are too many emails sent.

When I first heard about Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero presentation that he gave at the Google Campus in 2006, I was instantly intrigued. It was billed as the best hour that one could spend and I agree! I have probably saved 10 times that or more since I instituted this system 1.5 years ago.

While I highly encourage everybody to check out Mann’s original presentation, the basics are below. I presented this to some interested staff to start the year and it was pretty well received!

If I needed one sentence to summarize Mann’s idea, it would be this: Stop living in your Inbox! Instead of being a slave to email and living in your inbox, convert your relevant messages into predefined actions (mine are delete, do right nowto do later , and reference, in that order) and keep your inbox empty. Don’t use your inbox as a filing cabinet (it should be for new messages that haven’t been processed yet) and don’t spend a lot of time filing messages into subfolders (almost everything goes into that generic reference folder; if I need to find it I will search for it later).

One of the themes for my presentation on the subject (which, I admit, unabashedly steals large portions from Mann, including a few slides which I didn’t have time to prepare myself!) is to think about the analog equivalents of digital tools. This is why you’ll see quite a few references to Mad Men.

Nobody in their right minds (certainly not Don Draper!) would keep all of their correspondence stacked up in their “In Tray” on their desk. Why do we feel we can do that with email? If a phone message were to cross your desk, most people would act on it immediately, either by calling the person back, making a note in their calendar or throwing it in the trash. Why do we treat email any different?

Ultimately, Inbox Zero is about converting messages into actions and then disposing of those messages. It has helped give me a sense of purpose on busy days when I would have normally been overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of messages in my inbox. Now I know exactly where I need to go in order to find things I need to get done!

How do you handle email at school? What systems work for you?

Image credits:
Inbox Zero Presentation by Merlin Mann licensed under CC BY NC ND
Cuffs6 by banspy licensed under CC BY

Discussing Our Responsible Use Agreement

This year we are rolling out a new Responsible Use Agreement 1 to all members of the school community. In my mind this has needed to be done for quite some time and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster getting here, but I would like to thank Andrew Churches for his excellent resources licensed under Creative Commons.

To introduce th RUA to the teachers, I was given 1 hour last Friday. My goals were to familiarize all teachers with the new RUA and to empower them to feel comfortable discussing the idea of responsible use with students since they are truly the front line on this. I worked along with the counselors to come up with some “grey area” scenarios in Responsible Use. We then modified the Visible Thinking Routine Circle of Viewpoints to get groups of four to discuss the scenario from one of four viewpoints: student, teacher, administrator or parent. At the start of each of the four scenarios, participants took on a new role. The idea, in my mind, was to highlight the “grey” nature of these scenarios and, by looking at them from various perspectives, encourage discussion and the teaching of responsibility rather than judgement and assuming students know right from wrong.

The four scenarios we chose were:

  • A legitimate search for images in class returns an inappropriate image. The student then shares that image with others.
  • After completing their work, a student starts playing a flash-based game unrelated to school.
  • While working independently, the student is constantly “multi-tasking.” As the teacher walks around, the student minimizes programs and hides the task bar.
  • At break time, a group of students is playing online games together.

I was 2 blown away by the amount of discussion this activity created, both during the activity and for the rest of the day. It has brought the idea of responsible use 3 to the forefront of our discussions about community.

The next step is to run a very similar session with all students in the Middle and High Schools as well as sessions for parents in the first couple of weeks of school. I want this to be on everybody’s minds as we begin this school year and it will tie in perfectly with our visit from Robin Treyvaud in October!

What scenarios would you choose to include that would generate discussion in your community? How do you share and discuss your RUA with parents and students?


  1. It’s an agreement and not a policy since it isn’t issued by our School Board
  2. And continue to be! The comments I am still getting are evident that people are still talking about it and that’s a huge win in my book!
  3. As I said in a tweet, the use of the word ‘responsible’ is very deliberate as we are hoping to build a sense of responsibility rather than a sense of “what can I get away with”?

Blogging Tip: Subscribe to a Specific Category

Back in February, I had the pleasure of working with the great staff at YIS for a few days. One of the things that we focused on was the use of blogs in the classroom. While RSS is a lifesaver for teachers using blogging, one of the issues identified was the need to wade through posts that weren’t relevant. As a math teacher, I don’t really want to be notified every time students blog for their humanities class. Wouldn’t it be great if teachers could use RSS to subscribe only to a specific category?

Fast-forward a few months, and I came across the solution! Turns out it is dead simple. The only requirement (that I can tell) is that the blog cannot be using a service like FeedBurner, which redirects all feeds from a blog into a single feed. Here’s how you do it:

You can use this same hack to subscribe to posts with a specific tag or by a specific author as well.

(h/t WPRecipes)


The Cranky Teenager Stage

If one year of a dog’s life is equal to seven human years, then one year of 1:1 implementation must be equal to about three human years. And seeing as we are entering in to our fifth year of implementation next year, we must be turning in to one of those cranky teenagers. Let’s break it down:

Year 1 – The Newborn: In our first year, only teachers of 1oth and 11th grade were given laptops. Everybody else, including students, were stuck with laptop carts and computers labs. While it allowed us to get familiar with the machines, we couldn’t really do anything.

Year 2 – Toddling Along: In year two, all teachers in the Middle/High School received laptops as did students in 10th and 11th grade. There was a lot of stumbling, falling down and crying.

Years 3 and 4 (this year) – Adolescence: All teachers and all students in grades 6 – 12 now have tablets. We’ve grown up, we’re getting more independent. For the most part, we are still trying to please but we are gradually testing the boundaries of what is ‘allowed.’

And this brings us to next year: Year 5 – The Cranky Teenager. Teachers and students are getting restless. Some want change and they want it overnight. They are no longer happy being told what is good for them or appropriate. They want to figure it out for themselves. They want to be subversive. Every wall is seen as a challenge to overcome rather than a boundary to be obeyed. And sometimes, just sometimes, people get cheeky just to see if they can get away with it.

Obviously, I’m not talking about every teacher or every student. But there is a critical mass forming. We’ve been given a rigid structure to help us understand one way of thinking. Now that we know the rules, some of us are ready to break or bend or ignore them. Now that we know some of the possibilities, some of us won’t settle for anything less than everything.

Idealistic? Maybe. Will we make mistakes? Definitely. But that’s part of growing up.

(For the record, I think this Cranky Teenager stage is an exciting stage to be in! We’re at the stage that Chris Lehmann talks about – except for our atrocious Vietnamese internet connection. The conversation is no longer centered around what technology we have in the school but rather what we are doing with that technology.)

How is your 1:1 implementation going? Are you going through similar stages, or are you a child prodigy?

Codename: Crossbone by Shavar Ross licensed under CC BY NC ND
Technology must be like oxygen by langwitches licensed under CC BY NC SA

International Collaboration – NISTech 2011

After the UNIS Unconference in January, I received a comment from Ivan Beeckmans, the Technology Integration Specialist at NIST in Bangkok. He told me about the weekend PD workshops he was organizing for the teachers there and we discussed how the unconference format could be incorporated as a way to empower teachers to be learners and leaders.

One thing led to another and Ivan invited me to join the NIST staff at NISTech 2011 last weekend. Considering the similarities between NIST and UNIS – Tablet PC program, SharePoint portal, IBO World School to name a few – and the proximity – Hanoi is closer to Bangkok than it is to Ho Chi Minh City – I jumped at the chance!

The weekend was full of great conversations by a group of teachers committed to learning. Julian Edwards, the secondary school principal, made the important distinction between dialogue and discussion at the beginning of the weekend. We weren’t here to prove that we were right or to win any debates; our main purpose was to talk with each other and explore ideas.

It was interesting to be the only non-NIST teacher at the event. It gave me a different perspective on things, even with all of the commonalities. It was great to see and hear how students and teachers are using similar tools to achieve similar objectives in different ways. It was also reassuring to hear the same concerns surrounding effectiveness, time management and student learning that our teachers at UNIS voice.

I managed to get in and facilitate a few sessions on blogging with WordPress, OneNote and Creative Commons. I even managed to geek out a little with Jay Priebe, the Tech Director at NIST, over SharePoint and Veracross.

I’m hoping that NIST and UNIS can continue to build a strong cooperative partnership between our two schools. At the very least I’m hoping to be able to reciprocate the hospitality that was extended to me by Ivan, Jay, Julian and rest of the great staff at New International School of Thailand.

“Is my way the right way?”

I’ve been having a lot of conversations at school regarding acceptable/responsible use of technology, particularly with respect to gaming and middle school boys. I’m hoping we’re in the process of convening some sort of forum for all stakeholders to come together and review/discuss our RUP and how it pertains to students, parents and teachers alike. (If it all comes together as planned I’m sure I’ll write about it in more detail.)

One of the points I was making to our middle school counselor was the idea that gaming, for a lot of students, is now a social activity. Many parents and teachers – not just at my school – are up in arms that students are playing computer games instead of socializing “like normal kids”. But for these kids, computer games are normal and they are social.

I came across this excerpt from the book Losing Control, Finding Serenity by Daniel A. Miller on BoingBoing:

Genetics aside, our children are not nearly as much like us as we think. Yes, they look and act like us in varying ways, but they are very different from us. This point was powerfully driven home to me when I pressured my daughter Lana (then ten years old) to prepare for an important test. I wanted her to do it the way I had done it in school (making study notes, outlining the material, etc.), not by listening to loud rock music. She promptly responded: “Daddy, I’m different than you. I can’t do it that way. Listening to music helps me study better.”

I was immediately taken aback by the simple truth of what she said. Lana really is different than me, and vastly so. She studies for tests and does her homework differently than I did. She budgets her time differently than I did. She keeps her room and desk much differently than I did. She also has many different interests and talents than I had. After all, who am I to say that my way is the best way — for her? My way is just a way, nothing more. It worked for me, but that doesn’t mean it works for my child.

If we’ve only experienced our own childhood, how we do we make sense of a childhood experience that is set in completely different circumstances? How do we as teachers help parents realize the value in losing some of that control? How can this apply to parent education regarding the use of technology by students in and out of the classroom today?

Posterous and the Yearly Class Trip

Every year since I’ve been here, our grade 8 students have taken a trip to Hoi An and Hue. This year is no different and the leave on Monday!

Last year the students came back from the trip and created showcases using Shutterfly. This year, we’re aiming for something different…

The team of teachers who are running the trip decided they wanted some sort of real-time blog-based updates of the trip so that parents could stay up-to-date on what was going on. I thought this was a fantastic idea and set off to do some investigating. While we are a 1:1 school, we don’t have a culture of blogging nor do we have easy access to open blogging tools such as Edublogs Campus or a self-hosted WordPress installation. There was also the added complication of not having the students bring their own laptops on the trip. (The last thing anybody in a group of over 70 people is another thing to carry!). Students would have to rely on internet cafes or the teacher’s laptop.

Enter Posterous!

Genki has been using Posterous for the YIS Field Studies blogs for a few years now. I had dabbled with it way back when it was first introduced but hadn’t really touched it since. So, after playing around for bit, here’s what I decided to do:

The 66 students would be broken up into smaller groups of 4 or 5 students per group. In all, I needed to create 14 different Posterous blogs (7 groups of students are going from Hoi An to Hue; the other 7 are doing the journey in reverse from Hue to Hoi An). I could have created 14 sub-blogs, but I thought it would be too difficult to manage the invitations and passwords and what not. I decided to create 14 individual Posterous blogs instead. To do this, I used disposable email addresses based on my Gmail (such as to register for each blog. I then registered each student’s email account with the associated blog.

So now we’ve got 14 Posterous blogs set up for the entire grade. In order to write their posts, the students just need to use their school email account to send an email to with the pictures attached and the text in the body of the email. They can even add tags by modifying the subject line!

I’ve also created bundles in Google Reader that I have shared with the teachers on the trip. In order to check all the posts for their cohort of students, the teachers just need to check a single link!

Total time in front of my computer setting this up: under 2 hours, I would guess. There may be an easier way to do this in the future (if you have any ideas, please let me know in the comments!) and there may still yet be some complications, but this was pretty dead easy to administer.

If you interested in following along as well, use the following links. Posts should start coming in on Monday evening!

Hoi An to Hue

Hue to Hoi An

Image Credit: Japanese Bridge by Pigalle licensed under CC BY NC SA

Lendle: A P2P Community Library?

Sitting, waiting, for hours at Narita Airport on Saturday afternoon…

I’d finished Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, in my hotel earlier in the week. I couldn’t wait to get back to school so I could check out the last installment Mockingjay.

And then, as I was sitting in an internet cafe enjoying an overpriced double espresso and free internet, @21stcenteducat told me about Lendle.

Within 5 minutes I had set up an account, added the few Kindle books that I own, and put in a request for Mockingjay. Within 10 more minutes, another Lendle user had loaned the book to me. The hardest part was getting my Android phone connected to the wireless at the airport in order to get the book delivered to me!

Now I have two weeks to finish reading my loaned book before it automagically disappears!

Kindles are great for personal use but they are a lot of issues associated with trying to use them in a library. I wonder if Lendle can/will be modded to fit the needs of libraries around the world? I mean, if we can share books amongst strangers, why can’t we do it in our communities?

Two Days in Yokohama

I’m currently sitting in one of my old haunts – Starbucks in Kichijoji, one of the places where my now-wife and I use to hang out when we first met!

I’ve just spent the past two days at Yokohama International School working with and getting to know a good number of their teachers as they prepare for their Connected Learning Community this coming August.

We spent a lot of time discussing blogs, Google Apps, portfolios, assessment and good teaching practice. I even managed to get involved in a few MYP discussions!

I’ll have a lot more to say on the experience over the next week or so but my fingers are currently getting numb as I sit out on the patio enjoying the blue sky (and cold wind!). Thanks again to Kim Cofino for the chance to work and learn with a great bunch of teachers. And welcome to some new teachers in my PLN, including Brian Farrell, librarian; Adam Clark, counselor; Adam Seldis, Econ and Humanities teacher.